Gimme Shelter — 3

Paul E. Fallon
4 min readSep 29, 2021

A Primer on Housing America

In two previous posts I outlined a brief history of affordable housing in the United States and the current mechanisms for creating more. Still, the gap between the affordable housing supply and demand increases. Is there any way to turn that around?

Part Three: Fresh Strategies for Providing Affordable Housing

There are approximately 141 million housing units in the United States. We added about ten million units over the past decade, which represents continued flattening over time (11 million new units 2000–2020; 14 million 1990–2000; 18 million from 1980–1990). Still, the net increase in the number of housing units outpaces the rate of change in our population (7.4 % increase 2010–2020; 9.7% increase 2000–2010; 13.1 % increase 1990–2000; 9.8% increase 1980–1990). Housing supply siders advocate that if we simply build more housing, prices will stabilize and affordability will increase. Yet, for forty years we’ve consistently added proportionately more housing units than our population increase, So, why do we have a persistent shortage of affordable housing?

Two powerful demographics contribute to the problem. First, family size in the United States continues to shrink. In 2020, the average family size was 2.53 people per household. In 1980, it was 2.76 people. This seemingly small difference (0.23 people per household) balloons to a demand for over ten million additional housing units. Regardless, simple division illustrates that 141 million dwelling units can accommodate 330 million people clustered in 2.53 family units. With ten million to spare. Yes, but…

Vacancy rates stubbornly hold at three to four million units at any time. Over five million units are second homes — vacant most of the time. And housing is simply not as portable as people and jobs and economic opportunity. For every growing city with expensive and scarce shelter, there are a dozen dwindling burgs where houses depreciate and languish, empty. Thus, demand exceeds the number of housing units in places people want to live. The whole situation is aggravated when available housing costs so much more than many can afford. As a result, too many people spend too much of their income on shelter.

Our mechanisms for creating more affordable housing are tepid; our collective…

Paul E. Fallon

Seeking balance in a world of opposing tension